Paraphrasing, Why Are You So Difficult?

My name is Karin Perry and I’m a school librarian. Well, I was until I took a job teaching in the library science department at a University. My first experience with plagiarism was in elementary school when I was assigned to do a report on John Paul Jones, the American Revolution Naval Officer. I remember, vividly, sitting at a desk in my grandpa’s spare bedroom and cracking open the “J/K” World Book Encyclopedia volume to copy the entry word for word. How did I think I was going to sneak that by my teacher? Of course, she was smart enough to see through my clever ruse and asked me to redo my report. But, she didn’t give me any instruction on HOW TO write the report “in my own words.”

Teachers and librarians have the responsibility to teach children about the ethical use of information. We need to teach students to respect Intellectual Property and the definition of plagiarism.  So, to make sure we are all on the same page, let’s take a look at exactly what those two terms mean.

Intellectual Property – property that results from original creative thought, as patents, copyright material, and trademarks.

Plagiarism – an act or instance of using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorization and the representation of that author’s work as one’s own, as by not crediting the original author.

It is important to point out to students that using the THOUGHTS of another person without giving proper credit is a violation because, many times, they think that it only counts as plagiarism if they copy word for word. One trick kids like to use to “get around” this issue is to switch out one or two words and call it good. They pull out the thesaurus and go to town.

So, how do we teach students to write in their own words? (Disclaimer: I admit I’m not an expert) I think the two most important parts to teaching this lesson are modeling and practice. Teachers need to show students what proper writing looks like and provide students with opportunities to write without the pressure of possible failure. Not everything the kids write needs to be graded, so in-class, frequent practice sessions would give students the confidence to do the right thing when they are on their own.

The technique I used with students is this:

  1. Read a passage from an expository text.
  2. Close the book/turn over the paper (if it is a printed out or copied article).
  3. Write down what you can remember (in complete sentences).
  4. Compare the original passage and your writing.
  5. Is it too close to the original?
  6. If so, start the process again, but this time using your writing (this will help the student take another step away from the original while still keeping accurate information).
  7. The final step is to include the correct parenthetical citation at the end of the completed passage (students need to include the citation because they are using someone else’s thoughts).
  8. Be sure to teach students about the use of a Reference or Bibliography page.
  9. NOTE FOR THE TEACHER: This process needs to be closely monitored to make sure the student maintains accuracy.
I’m anxious to see what other teachers use to teach this lesson. Please leave your ideas in the comments.Final Note:

Here is my favorite student plagiarism story. When I was an elementary school librarian I put on a Poetry Slam every year.  Students wrote original poems and read them to a live audience from the stage.  It was a fun day. Their teachers or myself reviewed the students’ poems before they were given the go ahead to share.  One day a student brought a poem to me that seemed very familiar. It didn’t take long to remember where I’d read it before. That night I went home to find its source because I had the book on my shelf.  Here is the poem the student “wrote.” At least he had taste.

Watterson, B. (Artist). (2003). My parents are outer space alien freaks. [Print Drawing]. Retrieved from